Building a Place for Multimedia Studies in the Humanities

Andrew Mactavish
Humanities Computing Centre
McMaster University
1280 Main Street West
Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4M2

Joanne Buckley

Geoffrey M. Rockwell
Department of Modern Languages
McMaster University
TSH 312, McMaster University
1280 Main St. W.
Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4M2

Does multimedia as a discipline of study fit within the academic model of a traditional humanities faculty? Or do multimedia programmes belong in computer science departments and technical colleges where technological skill is usually highlighted over critical inquiry? Recently, these questions were the topic of faculty-wide debate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where a small group of humanities-computing faculty brought forward a proposal for a new B.A. Combined Honours in Multimedia. The road to approval raised important issues about how the humanities envisions multimedia and how it can accommodate the new forms of creative endeavour made possible by the electronic combination of multiple media.

In this paper, we raise the question of how to build a place for multimedia in the humanities. We will begin by giving a history of our degree proposal and mapping out the process of approval, including the opposition we faced and the responses we developed in our evaluation and promotion of multimedia as an appropriate and justifiable course of study in the humanities. We will use our practical experience as a base upon which to theorize on matters of legitimacy, technical skill vs. critical skill, and the more general problem of placing multimedia in the humanities.

The major parts of this paper are:

  1. A short history of humanities computing at McMaster University.
  2. The rationale for a B.A. in Multimedia and an outline of the program proposal, including a handout with course outlines.
  3. An analysis of the approval process, including the nature of the opposition we faced and our strategies for positive engagement with these challenges.
  4. A discussion of the theoretical issues arising from making a place for multimedia in the Humanities.

A Short History of Humanities Computing at McMaster University

Humanities computing at McMaster officially began with the founding of the Humanities Computing Centre (HCC) in 1986 and with the establishment of an Assistant to the Dean (Computing). In 1994, Geoffrey Rockwell became the new Assistant to the Dean (Computing), a position he holds to this day. McMaster's first humanities computing course (Introduction to Computing in the Humanities) was taught in 1995. The Humanities Communications Centre--an extension of the HCC--was opened in December of 1996. A group of new courses in the area of multimedia design was introduced in 1998 and a new faculty appointment was made at that time to teach them. To support the new BA programme, we have added 14 new courses in multimedia and we are hiring new faculty and technical staff.

Programme Rationale

As multimedia spreads as a viable and popular form of communication and entertainment, it becomes all the more important that universities study it and empower students with the knowledge of it. As J. Hillis Miller points out, students and scholars of "this new generation have been to a considerable degree formed by a new visual and aural 'culture'," which increasingly includes multimedia-based artefacts.[1] Since the humanities traditionally studies communication and representation, whether in the form of fiction, language, philosophy, history, music, or the visual arts, it makes sense to include multimedia in humanities' course offerings.

If multimedia is to be a legitimate area of study in the humanities, however, we must envision it as a field of inquiry that includes both the production and critical analysis of multimedia artefacts. It follows that teaching multimedia in the humanities means teaching students more than how to use the tools. We also need to teach them how to be critical of multimedia, both in its particular instances and in its larger social context. In other words, to address what Willard McCarty calls the "urgent need for a critical understanding of the new medium," we need to combine the technical, the creative, and the analytical.[2] Students whose strengths span these skills will graduate with a balanced knowledge and appreciation of multimedia and, therefore, will stand the best chance of success in their post-degree endeavors.

Programme Outline: Interdisciplinarity

At this point, we will outline the program design, including the core set of multimedia courses. Copies of the course descriptions will be available for attendees. We designed the programme's courses to fit and enhance traditional humanities programmes offered at McMaster. We build upon the textual disciplines by offering courses on hypertext and electronic texts; we build upon the visual arts by offering courses in graphics and digital video; we build upon drama by offering courses in animation and the design of space; and we build upon music by offering courses in audio and electronic music.

Our decision to adopt a Combined Honours format, where students must complete an Honours degree in Multimedia and another subject in the humanities or social sciences, reflects what we believe to be the interdisciplinary nature of multimedia. Since multimedia involves combining artefacts in various media--artefacts that are the basis of study in disciplines across the humanities--it makes sense to promote an interdisciplinary approach. So, we ask students to combine their study of multimedia with another subject area. One benefit of this approach is that we will not compete with other departments in our faculty. On the contrary, we hope to attract new students to McMaster who would otherwise attend post-secondary institutions elsewhere.

The Approval Process: Budgets and Balances

Bringing the proposal through the approval process not only meant securing financial support, but it also meant negotiating a route through faculty assumptions about the technical and the analytical. Finding money is one thing, but challenging notions of humanities scholarship can be just as demanding.

a) Budgeting
Here we will describe our experience seeking government and industry support and the importance of preparing a detailed and thorough budget. This section will end with a short discussion of long-term budgeting and the presentation of a budget checklist.

b) Internal Support
While industry and government were attracted by the potential employability of our programme's graduates, members of our own faculty distrusted what they perceived to be an over-emphasis on technology and employability. Even after reviewing updated versions of the proposal that stressed the programme's commitment to the traditional elements of humanities scholarship, some colleagues still wondered why an arts faculty should support what they assumed belongs in a technical college. It is as if there was an instinctive distrust of technology and employability.

Legitimizing Multimedia in the Humanities

While we are optimistic that our programme has a stable future, the process of programme approval raised more questions than it answered about legitimacy in the humanities, and, by extension, about competing visions of the humanities. The final section of our presentation will focus on some of these questions.

It comes as no real surprise to find that government and industry seem willing to envision a humanities that embraces technology and employability. After all, the humanities is facing increasing pressures to be more socially relevant and accountable.[3] But how should we respond if these visions of a technologized humanities rest upon a uncritical belief in fuelling the economy by training producers and consumers of technological goods and services? While humanities-based multimedia programmes might indeed increase producers and consumers of technology, we need to make sure that our programmes in humanities computing retain critical and analytical dimensions that challenge economic forces primarily interested in the accumulation of capital regardless of the cost to social equity. At the same time, we need to recognize that multimedia students may find themselves in the fortunate position of being highly desirable on the job market. For this reason, when we build relationships with industry, we must be sure to maintain control over curriculum.

It is also unsurprising to find in the humanities a general distrust of technology's apparent complicity with technical skill and employability. Yet we might wonder about what kinds of difference the humanities sees between the technical skills used to create digital works and the technical skills used to create critical works of scholarship, not to mention works of art. If the differences can be found in a hierarchy of cultural value that privileges the intellectual over the physical, then how do we reconcile this with the physical techniques learned in drama, painting, sculpture, print making, etc.? The humanities recognizes that physical technique in the fine arts has an important intellectual component; however, once computer technology enters the scene, it is as if mechanization and automation remove human intellect. But as Malcolm McCullough reminds us, "technology has both intellectual and physical elements."[4]

Building a legitimate place for multimedia in the humanities at McMaster University has meant developing and promoting a concept of multimedia that connects the physical and the intellectual and that emphasizes multimedia as a legitimate mode of representation deserving and requiring humanities scholarship. Indeed, if the humanities is to help give an equitable and ethical shape to the digital age, then it needs to engage with new communications technologies at the level of criticism and of practice.


  1. Miller, J. Hillis. "Literary and Cultural Studies in the transnational University." Culture and the Problem of the Disciplines. Ed. John Carlos Rowe. New York: Columbia UP, 60.

  2. McCarty, Willard. <>

  3. For a sampling of recent scholarship on the humanities and social responsibility, see Kaplan, E. Ann and George Levine, eds. The Politics of Research. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997, and Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1996.

  4. McCullough, Malcolm. Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996, 67.